As we mentioned earlier, OTDRs are always used on OSP cables to verify the loss of each splice. But they are also used as troubleshooting tools. Let's look at how an OTDR works and see how it can help testing and troubleshooting.
How OTDRs work
Unlike sources and power meters which measure the loss of the fibre optic cable plant directly, the OTDR works indirectly. The source and meter duplicate the transmitter and receiver of the fibre optic transmission link, so the measurement correlates well with actual system loss.
The OTDR, however, uses backscattered light of the fibre to imply loss. The OTDR works like RADAR, sending a high power laser light pulse down the fibre and looking for return signals from backscattered light in the fibre itself or reflected light from connector or splice interfaces.
At any point in time, the light the OTDR sees is the light scattered from the pulse passing through a region of the fibre. Only a small amount of light is scattered back toward the OTDR, but with sensitive receivers and signal averaging, it is possible to make measurements over relatively long distances. Since it is possible to calibrate the speed of the pulse as it passes down the fibre, the OTDR can measure time, calculate the pulse position in the fibre and correlate what it sees in backscattered light with an actual location in the fibre. Thus it can create a display of the amount of backscattered light at any point in the fibre.
Since the pulse is attenuated in the fibre as it passes along the fibre and suffers loss in connectors and splices, the amount of power in the test pulse decreases as it passes along the fibre in the cable plant under test. Thus the portion of the light being backscattered will be reduced accordingly, producing a picture of the actual loss occurring in the fibre. Some calculations are necessary to convert this information into a display, since the process occurs twice, once going out from the OTDR and once on the return path from the scattering at the test pulse.
There is a lot of information in an OTDR display. The slope of the fibre trace shows the attenuation coefficient of the fibre and is calibrated in dB/km by the OTDR. In order to measure fibre attenuation, you need a fairly long length of fibre with no distortions on either end from the OTDR resolution or overloading due to large reflections. If the fibre looks nonlinear at either end, especially near a reflective event like a connector, avoid that section when measuring loss.
Connectors and splices are called "events" in OTDR jargon. Both should show a loss, but connectors and mechanical splices will also show a reflective peak so you can distinguish them from fusion splices. Also, the height of that peak will indicate the amount of reflection at the event, unless it is so large that it saturates the OTDR receiver. Then peak will have a flat top and tail on the far end, indicating the receiver was overloaded. The width of the peak shows the distance resolution of the OTDR, or how close it can detect events.
OTDRs can also detect problems in the cable caused during installation. If a fibre is broken, it will show up as the end of the fibre much shorter than the cable or a high loss splice at the wrong place. If excessive stress is placed on the cable due to kinking or too tight a bend radius, it will look like a splice at the wrong location.
The limited distance resolution of the OTDR makes it very hard to use in a LAN or building environment where cables are usually only a few hundred meters long. The OTDR has a great deal of difficulty resolving features in the short cables of a LAN and is likely to show "ghosts" from reflections at connectors, more often than not simply confusing the user.
Using the OTDR
When using an OTDR, there are a few cautions that will make testing easier and more understandable. First always use a long launch cable, which allows the OTDR to settle down after the initial pulse and provides a reference cable for testing the first connector on the cable. Always start with the OTDR set for the shortest pulse width for best resolution and a range at least twice the length of the cable you are testing. Make an initial trace and see how you need to change the parameters to get better results.
The time may come when you have to troubleshoot and fix the cable plant. If you have a critical application or lots of network cable, you should be ready to do it yourself. Smaller networks can rely on a contractor. If you plan to do it yourself, you need to have equipment ready (extra cables, mechanical splices, quick termination connectors, etc plus test equipment) and someone who knows how to use it.
We cannot emphasise more strongly the need to have good documentation on the cable plant. If you don't know where the cables go, how long they are or what they tested for loss, you will be spinning your wheels from the get-go. You need tools to diagnose problems and fix them, and spares including a fusion splicer or some mechanical splices and spare cables. In fact, when you install cable, save the leftovers for restoration!
The first thing you must decide is if the problem is with the cables or the equipment using it. A simple power meter can test sources for output and receivers for input and a visual tracer will check for fibre continuity. If the problem is in the cable plant, the OTDR is the next tool needed to locate the fault.